The Berlin Boy in the Woods and the Strange Reality of Feral Children

Light shining through forestAnyone who’s read a Rudyard Kipling novel or watched a children’s cartoon fairy tale has been captivated by the idea of children who live in the woods and are raised by wolves. And while these accounts can seem fantastical, there have been several instances throughout history of feral children. In some cases, they spent a brief time in the woods after running away or being abandoned, while in other cases, these children were raised in the woods for brief or extended periods of time. Feral children almost always have trouble with language development, particularly if they’re found after the age of seven. But a new feral child case is unlike any other that’s been seen before and ends with a lawsuit.

Ten months ago, a boy showed up in downtown Berlin, Germany, claiming to have lived in the woods for the previous 5 years. He insisted that his father had died and that he had been told to head north to the city if he ever needed help. And head north he did, sparking a months-long investigation. The boy’s story was suspect from the very beginning. He wasn’t dirty and couldn’t provide any information about his name, birthdate, or place of birth. Yet he knew how to use a computer and claimed to be 17. For months, investigators tried to locate his parents, reasoning that if he was a runaway he’d eventually admit that he made the story up.

The boy ended up in the custody of social services, where his living expenses, food, and medical care were covered for months. But just this week, he finally admitted that he made the whole thing up. The feral boy, it turns out, was not feral at all, and was hardly a boy. He was 20-year-old Robin Vann Helsum, a Dutch man who created the hoax for reasons that remain unclear. He was finally discovered when former classmates saw his name on the news and reported his real identity to the authorities.

The story seemed too strange to be real from the very beginning, but much of Vann Helsum’s story lined up with popular narratives of feral children. He had amnesia about his early life, seemed uninterested in birthdays and not very interested in uncovering his identity. The reality of feral children, however, is often much different than the mythology of the trauma in the woods followed by selective amnesia.

Frequently, feral children aren’t produced by life in the woods at all. Indeed, some of them may never have been outside. The best-known feral child case involved Genie, a girl who was locked in her bedroom by abusive parents for the first 13 years of her life. Genie was never able to fully integrate into society and ended up in a mental institution after years of treatment failed to help her make progress. While Genie’s brain and health were normal, the lack of early socialization had inhibited her ability to develop into a normal adult.

Even without abuse, feral children struggle to adapt. In the few reported cases of children who were raised in the woods and lived among animals, the children almost always had language deficits that were not easily remedied. This suggests that language development is not a given; without the proper early environment, we may be incapable of ever learning language. The same is true of basic social skills, impulse control, and shame. Most children discovered living in the wild struggle to adapt and, in many cases, their story ends tragically in a mental hospital.

Fortunately for Vann Helsum, his story will not end in a mental institution. It may, however, end in jail. German authorities may charge him with fraud or sue him for the expenses incurred caring for him for 10 months.


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  • Syd


    June 22nd, 2012 at 2:52 PM

    This story must not have gotten very much press because this is the first time I have read anything about both this boy and the Genie story. Both of them sadden me for numerous reasons. I would first have to wonder what in the world someone did to this young man that would cause him to make up such an absurd story, and yet be convinced for apparently a number of months that he could ultimately pull it off. Had he suffered abuse by the hand of someone he grew up with and this was his way of escape? We may never know the truth behind that. Same thing with the story of Genie. Such a shame that a life that potentially could have normal and beautiful could be stole away from her like that, and for what reason? What kind of gain is there for the sick person who shut her away from the outside world other than to get their own perverse kicks? There are simply some things that I suppose are beyond my understanding.

  • benjamin


    June 23rd, 2012 at 4:14 AM

    Why would anyone even believe this story about this boy? Clearly, if he had been left in the woods to be raised he would not have known how to work on a computer! That all sounds like a matter of someone wanting to believe that his story is true and choosing to overlook the obvious!

  • Olivia M

    Olivia M

    June 23rd, 2012 at 3:54 PM

    I think that people come to believe what they choose to believe, no matter if it has anything to do with reality or not.
    We have always been fascinated by this concept of someone being left to be raised by wolves but then who could perhaps overcome some of that “wildness” and integrate seamlessly into society.
    Not really sure where that comes from, but my thoughts are that if someone can become ruthless enough to make it in the wild, then maybe I should be afraid to leave them to those devices in the human world.

  • mike


    June 24th, 2012 at 4:22 AM

    There are people who are raised in a normal home and upbringing and they still have problems with their social and communication skills.

    If all of this is taken away, and they are raised in a situation like Genie’s that is far less than ideal and perhaps would even be called abusive (and in her case it definitely was) how are they ever to be expected to over come all of that?

    We all know what a profound effect our childhoods have on us for the rest of our lives. It is pretty much always true that these are the events that make us who we are, and very sadly, we can see the effects of many children who may have made it physically through the abuse, but they can never make it past the emotional and mental damage that it can cause.

  • Les


    June 25th, 2012 at 12:32 AM

    As much as this proves how important social interaction is for a child to develop, we must also think about what is happening with us adults now.Everything is automated,we work from our homes,email and text friends instead of meeting or even calling them on the phone.We can easily survive for days without interacting with another human.What effect is all this habit on us in the long run?Bad?Im not sure.Good?Definitely not!

  • Arizona Annie

    Arizona Annie

    June 25th, 2012 at 4:18 AM

    Of course, doesn’t everything have to end with a lawsuit these days? I realize that this person made a mistake and even seriously misled suthorities when he told the lies about being raised in the woods. But I think that officials were just stupid in the first place to even think that this could have been true, and well, maybe that’s what they get for believing such a ridiculous story in the first place. And how much money could they really be out? Just let it go and it will all go away.

  • M.P


    June 26th, 2012 at 12:35 AM

    I think this whole phenomenon of feral children and such has become a fantasy. People WANT TO hear something like this, even of it is just to fuel their fantasy.

    Being devoid of human contact is not a nice thing for the development of any individual and it’s time we stop wondering about “Jungle boy” showing up.

  • noni b

    noni b

    June 26th, 2012 at 4:36 AM

    are there therapists specially trained to help deal with these kind of odd situations when they pop up?

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